Monday, May 31, 2004

The Academic Study of the Talmud

In every interaction I have had with R. Dr. Pinchas Hayman, a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan and the head of the Revadim project, he has come across as an extremely level-headed and realistic talmid hakham. However, when I read his article "Implications of Academic Approaches to the Study of the Babylonian Talmud for the Beliefs and Religious Attitudes of the Student", that impression did not come through. In this article, Dr. Hayman attempts to demonstrate that the "academic approach" to studying the Talmud is not only legitimate, it is the most authentic approach and the one used by traditional scholars throughout the ages. This is certainly a difficult thesis to prove, considering that almost everyone agrees that the "academic approach" is based on new, "scientific" methodologies. The way that Dr. Hayman proves his thesis is by creating typologies of yeshivah and academic approaches and demonstrating that the academic typology is based on traditional approaches while the yeshivah is not. This would work if his typologies were accurate. Unfortunately, they are more stereotypes than anything else.

I. Anachronistic Beliefs

Before we get to that, Dr. Hayman gives examples of textual beliefs taught in religious schools that are incorrect and "have virtually nothing in common with the teachings of the Pharisees, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and those who followed them, and are indefensible according to historical, logical and literary criteria." These are strong words, to say the least. Here are some examples of such wrong-headed beliefs so maliciously taught in religious schools:
- The entire Five Books of moses (the Written Tradition) were actually physically given at Mount Sinai together with the Written Tradition...
-The Halakhah as detailed in the Shulhan Arukh and responsa literature is the direct result of the Talmudic enterprise and is not given to alteration or cancellation.
It is due time we rid ourselves of such anachronistic beliefs, and let's cross out the Ramban's entire introduction to the Torah while we're at it. But beliefs about the source and development of the Written Torah and Halakhah are not the subject of this article, so let us move on to the alleged anachronistic textual assumptions about the Babylonian Talmud.

II. Teaching of the Talmud in Religious Schools

These are the six basic assumptions in current religious study of the Talmud, with my own commentary added on:

1. The Babylonian Talmud is the authoritative interpretation of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi on which it is based.

When it has practical implications, yes. Sure, one can find rare occasions in which post-Talmudic sages preferred an interpretation from the Yerushalmi. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. Certainly, over 99% of the time there is no post-Talmudic scholar who disputes the authority of the Babylonian Talmud's explanation of a Mishnah. I have no problems with this assumption.

2. The Babylonian Talmud is an exhaustive edition of the bona fide opinions of the sages, and only that which is brought in the Talmud has been adopted as accepted practice. Hence, there is no purpose in the study of extra-Babylonian Talmudic sources, such as the Yerushalmi.

While there may be someone somewhere who believes this, I find it so ridiculous that I cannot accept that any respected scholar believes this. Anyone who has studied rishonim or aharonim knows that that the Yerushalmi is considered a valuable source of instruction. However, when the Bavli contradicts the Yerushalmi we are bound to the conclusions of the Babylonian Talmud.

3. The text of the Babylonian Talmud as learned today was edited, fixed, sealed and written by Rav Ashi and Rabina, heads of the academy in Mata Mehasia in the fifth century, as stated in the Talmud itself: "Rav Ashi and Rabina are the end of instruction." Hence, the entire content of the Talmud as it appears in the printed version is binding on all Israel as the final decisions of the formal redactors of the Oral Tradition.

There are certainly people who are unaware that there are Saboraic additions to the Babylonian Talmud. However, most scholars are fully cognizant that certain passages - such as the beginnings of Kiddushin and Bava Metzi'a - are later additions. The standard rishonim (e.g. Ritva) state this explicitly! However, this is halakhically irrelevant because the Babylonian Talmud is not binding because Rav Ashi and Ravina are "sof hora'ah" but because, as the Rif states, the greater Jewish community accepted upon itself the authority of the Babylonian Talmud. To my mind, this includes the Saboraic additions but, even if not, since those additions were of an explanatory and not an halakhic nature, it does not matter.

Additionally, modern academic scholars have greatly increased the number of passages believed to be later additions based on highly speculative methods. Their guesses as to what are post-Talmudic additions can certainly be disputed by more conservative scholars.

4. In editing the Talmud, Rav Ashi and Rabina related primarily to the halakhic import of the statements of their forbears, without recourse to historic context or prevailing conditions in time, place and society. Therefore, it is possible to relate to the hundres of sages appearing in the text of the Talmud as if they sat together in a single generation and debated the concepts and halakhic issues studied in the Talmud discourses. Study of the Talmud should concentrate on the conceptual definition of halakhic statements on the various topics, and these definitions should be analyzed through abstract schema detached from the reality of the statements themselves.

I find it difficult to make heads or tails of this. Sometimes halakhich disagreements are due to different historical contexts, but the majority of the time they are not. The redactors of the Talmud resorted to historical explanations when necessary, but they usually are not. But even when historical reality is important, there is still a place of abstract conceptual analysis taking into account the different contexts. This seems to me to just be a statement of "I don't like Briskers". Even Briskers use the phrase "different metzi'us" but, evidently, not frequently enough. Generally speaking, differences in approaches to the Talmud do not revolve around the validity of certain methodologies but their priority; which weapons in the arsenal are drawn first and which later.

5. The Vilna edition of the Talmud is the authoritative and accepted printing of the edition of Rav Ashi and Rabina, and the very layout of the Vilna page has sanctity as an expression of Divine Providence. Alternative printings of the text can be considered, at most, as learning aids for initial preparation before the actual learning to be done in the Vilna text.

In my experience, attitudes towards textual variants in the text of the Talmud vary greatly throughout the yeshivah world. The only constant I have found is that most scholars find studying and searching for textual variants to be boring. It lacks the glory of finding a new halakhic ramification or devising a new theoretical construct. There are certainly some who appoint a mystical position of supremacy to the Vilna Talmud, as Dr. Hayman indicates. But there are also many who have are entirely accepting of variant texts, particularly those found in the texts of rishonim. There is, though, a distinct hesitance to change accepted texts without adequate evidence. This, I believe, is another legacy of Rabbeinu Tam who strongly opposed speculative changes of texts.

6. The Babylonian Talmud is the sole source for the halakhah in later periods, and there is utter unanimity between the Talmudic text and halakhic practice in our day. Apparent differences between the Talmud and halakhah can be explained through more abstract definitions of both.

I honestly do not know about what he is writing. To those from the school of the Vilna Gaon, this is indeed true. And when the halakhah seems to contradict the Talmud, they change the halakhah. To others, this is not true. They give a hallowed place to minhag and, to some, kabbalah.

In summary, Dr. Hayman has created a strawman of extreme views, some unrealistic, and posited that this represents the traditional yeshivah approach to the study of Talmud. And then, guess what, he topples this strawman in favor of academic study of the Talmud.

III. Academic Study of the Talmud

Dr. Hayman then proceeds to list the academic approach to the six assumptions listed above for the study of the Talmud. He then describes academic study of the Talmud as an undertaking that recognizes the complexities and the true nature of the transmission of the Oral Torah. Further, he makes the following, entirely obvious and uncontroversial statement:
Ipso facto, specific decisions brought in the texts can only bind later generations if proper comparative process yields the conclusion that prevailing circumstances match those discussed in the text itself.
No kidding! So, if the ovens we use in cooking are different from those used in Talmudic times then the laws of cooking on Shabbat might be different? Wow, it's a good thing that the posekim from the past half-millennium were academic students of the Talmud so they were able to recognize this.

Dr. Hayman attempts to discover why contemporary study of the Talmud is so divorced from the truly traditional approaches. He suggests that the printing of the Talmud gave a certain sanctity to the printed text and radically changed methodologies. There is certainly some merit to this suggestion, and he is not the first scholar to raise it, but he exaggerates its impact as much as he exaggerates the methodologies of contemporary religious schools. A phrase he borrows from R. Eliezer Berkovits to describe contemporary talmudic methodologies, "Karaism of the Oral Tradition," is not only offensive but simply incorrect. If he is describing the textualism of today's religious community, a phenomonen discussed at length by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik in his famous "Rupture and Reconstruction" article, then he might be close to target. But to refer to a methodology of Talmud study with the name of a heretical and deviant sect is just offensive.

IV. Implications

Dr. Hayman then attempts to demonstrate that there is a serious lacking in current high school teaching of the Talmud. He quotes a number of statistics and anecdotes to show that students are bored with Talmud, don't truly understand it and do not continue its study after formal schooling. Rather than looking at socio-religious causes for this problem, Dr. Hayman places the blame entirely on the methodology of teaching and studying Talmud. He might be right; I doubt it. But if his new approach replaces respect for scholars with the kind of arrogance and disdain for tradition he displays in this article then I suspect that more students may be studying Talmud, but not with kippot on their heads.

Friday, May 28, 2004

The Haredization of American Orthodoxy II

Here is a brief summary of R. Berel Wein's article (mentioned by J.I. in the comments section) attempting to explain the shift to the right in American Orthodoxy:

Samuel Heilman posited four reasons for the "shift to the right" in American Orthodoxy:
1. Moral decline of general American society
2. Influence of Haredi teachers in Modern Orthodox schools
3. Decline of number of talented Modern Orthodox rabbis and teachers
4. Year (or two) of study in Israel

R. Wein adds some more reasons:
1. The right has been able to offer the benefits of modernity (i.e. professional success) without risking undue exposure to American society
2. The right is more dynamic in addressing Orthodox needs (e.g. Hatzolah, Ohel, Mishkan, Aish HaTorah)
3. The right and the left are coming closer to each other, each adopting the other's greatest achievements
4. Modern Orthodox ideology - the claim that acculturation is a good thing in itself - does not resonate well even with the Modern Orthodox
5. Attitudes to the State of Israel are no longer of primary importance

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Organ Donation III

A rundown of positions on Brain Death from an article by R. Yitzchok Breitowitz titled "The Brain Death Controversy in Jewish Law":

1. As noted, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler has been the most vigorous advocate for the halachic acceptability of brain death criteria. In his capacity as chairman of the RCA's Biomedical Ethics Committee, Rabbi Tendler spearheaded the preparation of a health-care proxy form that, among other innovations, would authorize the removal of vital organs from a respirator dependent, brain death patient for transplantation purposes. Although the form was approved by the RCA's central administration, its provisions on brain death were opposed by a majority of the RCA's own Vaad Halacha (Rabbis Rivkin, Schachter, Wagner and Willig).

2. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate Council, in an order dated Cheshvan 5747, has also approved the utilization of "brain death" criteria in authorizing Hadassah Hospital to perform heart transplants but on a somewhat different theory than Rabbi Tendler...

3. Rabbi J. David Bleich, Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University and author of many papers and a recently published book on the subject, has stated that anything short of total liquefaction (lysis) of the brain cannot constitute the equivalent of decapitation... He also asserts that his position is not based on stringency in case of doubt but rather on the certainty that the brain death patient is still alive, a certainty that could be relied upon even to be lenient, e.g., a Cohen may enter a "brain dead" patient's room without violating the prohibition of tumat meit.

4. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk and RIETS, has done slightly further than Rabbi Bleich. Even if the heart has stopped and the patient is no longer breathing, the patients is alive if there is some detectable electrical activity in the brain. It has been noted, however, that there is no recorded instance of this phenomenon occurring.

5. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel of RIETS, has taken a more cautious view. Conceding that the concept of "brain death" may find support in the decisions of R. Moshe, he concludes that such a patient should be in the category of safeik chai, safeik met (doubtful life). While removal of organs would be prohibited as possible murder, one would also have to be stringent in treating the patients as met, e.g., a Cohen would not be allowed to enter the patient's room.

6. Most contemporary poskim in Eretz Yisroel (other than the Chief Rabbinate) have unequivocally repudiated the concept of death based on neurological or respiratory criteria. Of special significance are letters signed by R. Shlolmo Zalman Auerbach and R. Yosef Elyashiv, widely acknowledged as the leading poskim in Eretz Yisroel (if not the world), stating that removal of organs from a donor whose heart is beating and whose entire brain including the brain-stem is not functioning at all is prohibited and involves the taking of life...

Organ Donation II

From a 1989 article by R. Ahron Soloveichik titled "Death According to the Halacha":

A person who becomes devoid of respiration but who still has cardiac activity is considered semi-alive and semi-dead. Consequently, if someone will kill him, he will be considered a murderer. Hence, it is absolutely forbidden (yehareg ve-al ya'avor) to cut out the heart of that person even though the removal of the heart of the donor is indispensable to the preservation of the life of the donee...

It is obvious that the so-called "Harvard Criteria" do not conform to halacha...

It is incumbent upon all those who have ethical sensitivity to protest against those who are trying to implement the Harvard criteria through a heart or liver transplant because of brotherhood and mercy. I have the greatest respect and reverence for the few distinguished and revered Rabbis here and in Israel who expressed themselves in favor of the Harvard criteria. However, as the Ba'al Ha'Maor in his introduction says... "I love Plato but the truth I love above everything else."

The Haredization of American Orthodoxy

Chaim Waxman has an interesting article in the most recent Edah Journal. Below are excerpts in which he offers explanations and descriptions about the apparent "haredization" of the Orthodox Community. Interesting thoughts. (Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I believe this author is the son-in-law of R. David Lifschitz.)

Some find it ironic that many of the new Orthodox communities, which were developed by Modern Orthodox Jews and reflected Modern Orthodox norms and values, are now abandoning many of those norms and are becoming much more haredi. In part, this is a result of the fact that, with Orthodox communal development, increasing numbers of haredim feel free to move there. This pattern manifests itself in a range of Orthodox communities, such as Boro Park and Flatbush, in Brooklyn, the Five Towns in Nassau County, Monsey in Rockland County, Baltimore, Toronto, and others. But there is much more to the pattern.

As I interpreted the "haredization" of American Orthodoxy, it was due to a number of sociological, ideological and institutional factors, including the higher birth rate among haredim; the more highly organized character of haredi communities, which have clear lines of authority with high degrees of social control; the reactionary tendency of haredim; the haredi dominance over day schools; and the weaker institutional base of Modern Orthodoxy.

They also have a strong sense of ideological self-assuredness; that is, they have no doubts about the correctness of their approaches...

With respect to the "turn to the right" in American Orthodoxy, it was, in large measure, a reflection of the broader turn to the right and rise of fundamentalism in a variety of different countries and continents...
Until now were explanations for the "haredization". Now comes an interesting caveat.

It should be emphasized, however, that part of the haredization of American Orthodoxy was more illusory than real. American Orthodoxy appeared to have been haredized because the haredi element is much more visible than are the Modern Orthodox. Most obviously, the haredim stand out with their unique patterns of dress. The Modern Orthodox, by contrast, look like everyone else. In addition, American haredim, as opposed to their counterparts in Israel, are much more involved with the larger society, and they have not been immune to the impact of American culture - they have a much greater visible presence in every occupational field than do Israeli haredim. They appear to have a particular attraction to the technological areas of computers and communications, precisely the areas that burgeoned during the 1980s and 1990s. As such, increasing numbers of non-haredim became aware of them and came into contact with them, and they appeared to dominate Orthodoxy.

In addition, the very modernity of the Modern Orthodox meant that they were less likely to be affiliated and actively involved with Orthodox communal organizations than are the haredim...
And now for a revelation that is so obvious I don't know how I could not have seen it. I'm sure I intuitively recognized this but there is much to be gained from verbalizing it. I see it even among my (formerly) haredi relatives.

As a result, Modern Orthodoxy has benefited from the growth and acculturation of the haredi community. That is, much as it may not wish to admit it, the haredi community is not immune to the forces of the larger society and culture and there have been defections from it to Modern Orthodoxy. In fact, the increases in the size of the haredi community may also have resulted in greater numbers of those leaving haredism and becoming part of the Modern Orthodox community.

Torah and Taharah

In a comment, Kochav wrote:
Does the learning of Torah (just learning - even if it's Zevachim and Keilim) make one a better person/mentsch? If not, then our question is how can we teach morals to these intellectuals.
If one has yiras shamayim then learning Torah will further purify your soul. However, if one lacks a fear of God and does not work on one's midos nor actively attempt to fix one's behavioral and attitudinal problems, then Torah cannot serve to purify. Such a person is like one who immerses in a mikvah while holding an (impure) insect in his hand (tovel ve-sheretz be-yado - see how much more elegant Hebrew is than English).

The Limits of Orthodox Theology III

Menachem Kellner reviews Marc Shapiro's book. I have not yet had a chance to read the review but I'm sure, based on Kellner's hazakah, that it is correct on almost every minor point but entirely wrong on the big picture.

UPDATE: Some first thoughts. Kellner was actually wrong on some minor points as well.

Kellner writes:

Pre-emancipation Judaism was an unselfconscious amalgam of religion and what came, in the nineteenth century, to be called nationality. With very few exceptions (the anusim of Iberia being the most prominent example), Jewish authorities never had to define who a Jew was, since the matter was clear, both to the Jews and to the Gentiles...

In that context [of the Emancipation], Rambam's Thirteen Principles, wholly ignored by poseqim since their publication and ignored by theologians (except in Iberia between 1391 and 1492), suddenly came into their own and began to be used, with increasing vigor, to define the line between "good" Jews and those who must be excluded, those with whom no religious cooperation may be permitted, those who, from the most lenient viewpoint, are tinoqot she-nishbu (uninformed and therefore inadvertent and blameless transgressors), and, from the most stringent, are out-and-out heretics.
One wonders how it is possible that Kellner forgot what he has written in his books: The ikkarim literature was largely written as a response to Karaism. There was a very real need to precisely define who is Jewish and who is not, and the ikkarim served that function. No, not that the rishonim made up the ikkarim because of historical circumstances, but that the situation pushed them to delve into these matters and clarify all of the issues. Not just philosophers but halakhists as well. This was very much a practical matter.

The real question is why investigation into these matters largely ceased between the Expulsion from Spain and the Emancipation. Kellner does not ask this question, but it is a good one. Perhaps there were other problems to deal with and there was not enough curiosity about this matter at that time (people were busy enough dealing with resettlement, kabbalah and Shabsai Tzvi). His question - why did people only start defining who is a Jew after the Emancipation? - is based on a mistaken premise that entirely contradicts his books Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought and Must a Jew Believe Anything?.

A consequence of all this, I believe, is the following interesting anomaly. While Orthodoxy strongly adheres to the notion of yeridat ha-dorot (decline from one generation to the next), it is actually the latest of the aharonim (later, post-Shulhan-Arukh authorities) who really determine what Jewish orthodoxy is.
This is silly. There is no contradiction. Even though we are less than the rishonim, judges must rule as they see proper and we must follow them. Yiftah be-doro ki-Shmuel be-doro.

It will also be argued against Shapiro and my defense of him here that matters of theology are assimilable to halakhah. Whatever the rishonim may have "paskened," as it were, on specific details of theology, we are duty bound to follow the pesaq of the rabbis of our own day. This is a popular position, even though it is historically unsound and conceptually muddled. With respect to the historical reality, Rambam himself, accepted by all as the greatest poseq in matters of theology, explicitly rejected the assimilation of theology to halakhah.
Kellner here continues Shapiro's mistake of misinterpreting the Rambam's statement that there is no method of deciding among opinions when there is no practical implication. Rambam nowhere states that there is no pesak in aggadah. But this is not the place for a long refutation of Kellner and Shapiro. Od hazon la-mo'ed

Monday, May 24, 2004

Organ Donation

I've been asked more than once to discuss organ donation. This isn't the post in which I will. But I do want to point out the long list of rabbis that the Halachic Organ Donor Society. Three interesting things to note:

Not one member of the RCA's halacha committee is on the list and at least one person on the list is a JTS graduate and the associate rabbi of a Conservative synagogue. Also, no Tendlers are on the list. Can anyone explain that?

Flatbush Eruv

In case anyone is dying to know my thoughts on the controversial Flatbush Eruv that was officially unveiled a few weeks ago, this website adequately expresses my view. If you held of the old Flatbush Eruv (put up by the Va'ad ha-Rabbanim decades ago) then the new one just adds some hiddurim. If you did not hold of the old eruv then nothing has changed.

This pamphlet is a basic rebuttal of a pro-eruv booklet that is circulating.

New York Water

This teshuvah from R. Hershel Schachter on the New York water issue was just passed along to me.

UPDATE: The teshuvah has been taken down upon request from its source. A new version with a somewhat different conclusion is expected shortly.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Morality and Brisk

In an article by R. Shalom Carmy cited in the previous two posts, he quotes a former student who wrote to him the following:
But in the halakhic world of Brisk does a voice cry out, saying "An Arab too is a gavra, a person"? Do all of these glib distinctions between subject and object teach their discoverers that the God who created one man cannot allow any men to be objects?
Reb Yudel suggests, in the comments sections to the preceding post, that we try to give our answers to this question. My answer is the same as that to the question of how the original Briskers could be opposed to mussar. We simply rarely see today true yiras shamayim. This, I believe, is the biggest of our communities' problems. If we could somehow solve this then all of the other problems would disappear in short order.

R. Hayim Soloveitchik and R. Barukh Ber Lebowitz were legendary for their hessed and tzidkus. They truly fulfilled the maxim that "reishis chochmah yiras Hashem." They did not need to sit in a "mussar house" and repeat passages over and over in a sing-song in order to instill in themselves yiras shamayim. They had it before becoming talmidei hakhamim and only grew in it through their studies. They felt no need to teach their students something that a true yerei shamayim knows intuitively, whether it be interpersonal mitzvos or the basic kavod that every human being deserves.

However, the generations decreased rapidly and even some of R. Hayim's students became proponents of mussar, most notably his top pupil R. Isser Zalman Meltzer and the latter's brother-in-law R. Moshe Mordekhai Epstein. Mussar proponents do, indeed, teach about kevod ha-beriyos but the true Briskers resist all such attempts, assuming that talmidei hakhamim already know these basic premises and have already achieved a profound yiras shamayim. Would that only be so.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Morality and Halakhah II

Another gem from the previously mentioned article by R. Shalom Carmy:

In recent years we often hear from those who insist the old anti-­Semitic propaganda had it right - that the teachings of the Torah about Gentiles are, God forbid, such as would repel those Jews and non-Jews who take common "perennial" morality seriously. The Rabbinic establishment and those it represents have more or less gotten around to condemning Kahane, but somehow, without questioning their sincerity, we sense that something is missing.

What is missing is the passion. Earnest, honorable, respectable teachers of Torah, who would self-assuredly and justifiedly snort at the suggestion that the prohibition of blowing shofar (or, for that matter, performing on the organ) on Shabbat is "only" rabbinic, become strangely "objective" when called upon to instruct the faithful about attitudes to Gentiles. True, the laws of Dvarim 20 do not apply today. Yes, God is compassionately concerned for all His creatures. Yes, there is some kind of halakhic source that says man ought to imitate the moral attributes of his Creator. But it's "only" darkhe shalom and we don't want to look like Reform universalists. So we do God a favor and endorse His Ways, but half­heartedly, grudgingly, like the proverbial Synagogue Board that wishes the ailing Rabbi his hearty refua shelema by a 6-5 vote.

Who is a Gadol?

I came across an online article by R. Shalom Carmy: "Who Speaks for Torah - And How?" (Religious Zionism, 1989). R. Carmy addresses a number of issues in that article, one of which is Rabbinic Authority. In the course of discussing how to determine who is a gadol and if such an evaluation is possible, he makes the following insightful comments:

Now if obtaining a centralized Torah authority is essential and urgent, the rational procedure would be to focus our attention on determining who of the possible candidates for leadership is indeed the most worthy - and may the greatest Gadol win!

This rational approach is not likely to yield decisive results. More­over it is sure to reinforce two of the least attractive vices of contemporary Orthodox discourse:

1) The Loud Mouth: People lauding the superiority of their exemplary Rabbi(s) rarely do so knowledgeably. How many of the gentlemen who belittle, supposedly on grounds of Torah scholarship, the rank accorded, by their followers, to R. Shach or to the Lubavitcher Rebbi, have actually assessed the respective contributions to that scholarship of the Avi Ezri and the Likkute Sihot? Know-­Nothing disparagement has a deleterious effect on our intellectual and moral lives and should not be encouraged.

2) Idolatry of the Intellect: The attempt to order, "quantitatively," Rabbinic luminaries, strengthens our inclination to value that which can most readily be inspected from the "outside," as it were. This enhances the cult of intellectual cleverness and analytic brilliance and the downplaying of wisdom, good judgment and their inevitable corollaries - self-criticism and humility. Our community does not need to breed more of this.

In any event, it is folly to anticipate consensus about Rabbinical authority. To claim that such consensus exists cannot fail to make us, and what we stand for, appear foolish too.
Not entirely related, but too important to be ignored, is the following:

Respect for other Jews' legitimate Rabbinic authorities does not, of course, impose upon us a belief in the inferiority of our own. Our ideological vitality has already been too much sapped by our addiction to aimless self-doubt. Just as important, we have no right to undermine our institutional legitimacy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Bialystoker Controversy III

Updating readers on The Bialystoker Controversy...

I sat next to the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue at a wedding a few weeks ago. I brought up the controversy in which he was involved and told him my take on the issue. To remind you, this is what I posted a few weeks ago:
He could have stopped here and said that a child until the age of nine or ten has a status of a holeh she-ein bo sakanah (a non-critical sick person - see Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 276:1, 328:17; Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkhatah, ch. 37 par. 2 vol. 1 p. 495) and, if such a child is hysterical one may violate a rabbinic prohibition on his behalf. Since, if a child can walk on his own the prohibition to carry him is only of rabbinic origin, and if a child is hysterical he has a status of a holeh she-ein bo sakanah for whom one may violate a rabbinic prohibition, it follows that one may carry such a hysterical child.
The rabbi did not like my logic because he is not so sure that a crying child has the status of a holeh she-ein bo sakanah, although he agreed that if a child is hysterical in the middle of the street you should pick him up and carry him so that he is not run over by a car. I should note that he was quite sick at the time. Smiley, but sick.

Avodah Zarah Wigs VII

Shaya, one of our readers, has put together an excellent collection of sources on this subject.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Interfaith Dialogue IV

Rabbi Shalom Carmy writes to the editor of The Commentator about R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's attitude towards Christianity, including entering churches and teaching Torah to Christians. Like everything this eminent scholar writes, hapokh bah ve-hapokh bah for there is much in between the lines.

Mussar Sayings

I came across a short list of sayings from some of the most influential of the ba'alei ha-mussar (I almost wrote the greatest of the ba'alei ha-mussar, but the nature of such people is that the greatest were probably anonymous and lost to history). Rather than copy the entire page here, I picked only two quotes. Go there for more:

"Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too."
- Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, Alter of Novarodok

Rav Itzele (Peterburger) Blazer, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter, says that there are two books in heaven, one of sins where you gave a sigh when you sinned and one when you didn't, and the difference in punishment between them is greater than the distance between heaven and earth.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Homosexuality in Halakhah V

I have been meaning to blog R. Chaim Rapoport's excellent book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View. The author is a prominent rabbi in London who, though a Lubavitcher hasid, tends to a mainstream synagogue and serves on the Chief Rabbi's cabinet. The author is clearly an expert in halakhah and a master bibliographer. Additionally, he has written his book with his audience in mind, keeping the text to more general matters and leaving the complex halakhic issues for lengthy endnotes.

R. Rapoport's book is sure to make waves. He strongly argues for a number of non-mainstream views that have never before been put forth by such a traditional voice.

He starts off his book by laying down the prohibition against homosexuality. He states that not only are homosexual relations but any form of intimacy and even intentional fantasizing is prohibited for males; for females, the prohibition is either biblical or rabbinic, either way authoritatively binding. This is all adequately and convincingly documented with lengthy endnotes. However, he emphasizes, there is nothing inherently forbidden about being attracted to a member of the same sex. Being an inactive and carefully controlled homosexual is entirely consistent with an halakhic life.

He then progresses to reasons why homosexuality is forbidden. He makes his way through all of the different explanations of the word to'evah and concludes that while the prohibition might sometimes seem perfectly reasonable, it is ultimately a Divine decree and even situations that perhaps do not fit into any of the rationalizations for the prohibition - such as loving, monogamous homosexual relationships - are still forbidden. Whether this is a hok or a mishpat is, in the end, an academic issue.

Is homosexuality inborn or an acquired trait? Answer: It does not matter. Even if someone is born as a homosexual, that only determines one's desires and not one's actions. No one is forced by his nature to perform homosexual acts. R. Rapoport raises the convincing point that even proponents of "conversion therapy" claim a success rate of under 50%. That means that at least half of all homosexuals cannot be "converted" into heterosexuals. Furthermore, there are different degrees of homosexual attraction, with some being attracted to both sexes, some only to the opposite, and many with varying strengths toward each gender. Someone who is a "confirmed homosexual," with attraction only towards the opposite sex, is much less likely to be able to "convert" than someone who is attracted to both sexes.

However, chapter 3 is titled "The Formidable Challenge" because R. Rapoport acknowledges that homosexuals face a tremendous battle. One example that I found eye-opening is how a religious heterosexual would react to having an unusually strong libido. He would simply try to avoid interaction with women. In a strictly Orthodox society it is possible to accomplish this to a large degree. But what is a homosexual to do? How is an Orthodox male supposed to avoid being around other males, to many of whom he is physically attracted? If he is honest with himself, he knows that he must avoid temptation. Yet, the entire society is geared to help him avoid heterosexual temptation and, unwittingly, place him in situations of homosexual temptation. This is sure to cause great frustration to a homosexual trying desperately to do the right thing.

In chapter 4, R. Rapoport argues that homosexuals who succumb to their desire are no worse than other sinners. They are people who have given in to their desires - mumarim le-te'avon. There are those who suggest that homosexuals are under duress, they are annusim, but R. Rapoport rejects this line of thought. If this were so, an agunah would also be considered annusah if she engaged in an extra-marital affair, something which few would accept as a reasonable argument.

It is critical to maintain a proper understanding of the homosexual ordeal. This is not to excuse their transgressions, if they commit any, but to properly recognize their situations. No demographic has a higher suicide rate than homosexuals. Because there are certainly "closeted" homosexuals in the Orthodox community who are probably suffering greatly to live with their orientations, we must be extra-careful not to denigrate homosexuals and, possibly, push someone further into the depression that is common for homosexuals. Such a comment just might be pushing someone closer to suicide. If we understand how difficult their lives are, we will certainly project a sympathy for rather than a denigration of homosexuals.

Perhaps, R. Rapoport suggests in chapter 6, homosexuals in today's society of permissiveness are tinokos she-nishbu. Maybe they are. But if this is the case then we would have to be prepared to call adulterers and other sexual deviants tinokos she-nishbu as well. And maybe that is the case.

R. Rapoport emphasizes, though, that he is only dealing with individual homosexuals. He has no sympathy for organizations that promote a "homosexual lifestyle" or otherwise imply that homosexual relations is permitted by the Torah. These organizations are antithetical to Torah and are "completely outside the pale of acceptability."

It is unhealthy, and probably prohibited, to encourage someone to marry who cannot maintain a normal marital relationship. It is wrong for the closeted homosexual and even more wrong for the unwitting spouse who commits to a relationship under false pretenses. Every situation is different. But many homosexuals are entirely unfit for marriage and to encourage otherwise is to inflict emotional trauma on two vulnerable people.

Finally, the last chapter is devoted to real correspondence R. Rapoport carried on with homosexuals and with those who attacked his stances as being too liberal. The sympathy R. Rapoport is able to evoke is a strong weapon in properly advising these troubled souls. As to his critics on the right, R. Rapoport's scholarship is amply sufficient to ward off such attacks.

If any criticism is to be delivered to this book, I believe it is regarding R. Rapoport's almost entirely avoiding the very real issue of defiant homosexuals. That is, those who believe that the Torah is wrong for prohibiting homosexuality and try to recruit others to their cause. These people are distorters of Torah, sinners lehakh'is, and are deserving of our condemnation. However, we must be incredibly sensitive not to give the impression that we are condemning the struggling homosexual who truly wishes to follow G-d's word. Nevertheless, I believe that lehakh'is homosexuals are extremely common and are, unfortunately, casting a negative shadow on struggling homosexuals. R. Rapoport's avoidance of this topic was perhaps intentional, or perhaps naive. Either way, it will surely be raised by his critics.

Avodah Zarah Wigs VI

A letter by R. Dovid Ribiat, author of The 39 Melochos, has been posted to the web in which he argues that wigs from India are permissible according to R. Moshe Feinstein.

UPDATE: I removed the link to R. Ribiat's letter.

Avodah Zarah Wigs V (and Water In New York)

The most recent issue of Avodah has two interesting posts about the wig controversy.

R. Elazar M. Teitz explains why he believes there is no avodah zarah issue with the hair from India.

R. Seth Mandel does as well, and describes his efforts in the past to understand the production process of wigs.

As a bonus, R. Mandel gives us an inside look at the OU's treatment of the alleged bug infestation of the New York City water supply.

New Book: Letter To A Philosophical Dropout From Orthodoxy

I stumbled across this book:

Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What To Think: Letter To A Philosophical Dropout From Orthodoxy
by Rabbi Shalom Carmy

This looks very interesting. A related message board is here, although it has had very little action.

I hope to report back after I read the book.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Principles of Faith

R. Hayim Soloveitchik's strong stance on the denial of a principle of faith is well known through the writings of R. Elhanan Wasserman. The following is a fascinating confirmation that I found in Making of a Godol (p. 538 - emphasis added):

The closest that R' Hayyim came to coercion according to Toras Hayim was the explanation that he gave of Eliyahu haNavi's suggestion to the idol worshippers who were "hobbling between two opinions", to wit, "If G-d be the L-rd, follow Him; and if Ba'al, follow him." R' Hayyim asked how the Prophet could possibly suggest they worship Ba'al, and he answered that in principles of faith, the denial of even one tenet makes one's acceptance of all the rest worthless. Therefore, if Eliyahu's listeners had a slight tendency to Ba'al, their worship of G-d became useless anyhow, and he suggested to them that they may as well go all the way to Ba'al. He added that the 850 prophets of Ba'al and the Asherah were "certainly not ministers or priests of the Ba'al church, but rabbis who ruled on every mitzvah properly, except that they incorporated the worship of Ba'al into the Torah" - and that nullified all the good deeds they were preaching and promoting.
Note that he did not say that the good deeds of a sinner are worthless. The Rambam in his Iggeres Teiman decried such an attitude. R. Hayim was only speaking of one who denies a principle of faith.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Avodah Zarah Wigs IV

After a little investigation we determined that my wife's nice wig contains only European hair - a combination of spending a lot of money (a gift from my mother-in-law) and my wife preferring a curly wig. All is well in my house tonight.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Understanding the Patriarchs

R. Aharon Lichtenstein on how to relate to the apparent sins of our great forefathers:

However, although we cannot deny these sins, we must view them in light of Chazal’s overall attitude toward these personalities. Generally, Chazal and the Rishonim relate to Moshe with obvious reverence... Chazal exhibit the same respect and reverence for other gedolei Yisrael, as well, depicting them as giants of character and deed.

We must relate to these gedolim in the same manner as Chazal. Just as we have a tradition of Halakha, so too do we have a tradition regarding these matters. Just as we do not deviate even one iotafrom Chazal’s specifications regarding the four species on Sukkot, for example, so we may never stray from their approach towards the personality of King David. We must view Moshe, David and others as giants in the full sense of the term.

However, we cannot relate to them as superhuman beings, bereft of any emotion or human experience... Were Avraham not to have had any human emotions or drives, and would thus have taken his son to be sacrificed just as one would an animal, then akeidat Yitzchak would not have constituted as monumental a display of faith and religious resolve as it did; it would have lost its significance.

Thus, we cannot overlook the sins of several of gedolei Yisrael, but we must view them in the broader context of Chazal’s overall attitude towards these exceptional personalities. These are giants who sinned, but whose sins do not diminish their greatness.

Today, there are many people disloyal to the tradition of Chazal who focus only on the sins of gedolei Yisrael, rather than on their greatness. Therefore, specifically in our day and age, we must be sure not to take these sins out of their appropriate context, and must rather relate to our Biblical heroes in light of the attitude of Chazal and the Rishonim toward them.

Avodah Zarah Wigs III

Frumteens has an interesting summary of the halakhic history of this question.

AishDas has a copy of a good newspaper article on the subject (I, II, III).

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Administrative Message

You may have noticed that for the past few days I've just been posting long quotes with a few interspersed comments. I haven't had the time to put together new material so I'm just putting up interesting things from others. I will IY"H find some time soon to blog another sugya.

Some Tough Questions for Modern Orthodoxy

Some insights and tough questions for serious Modern Orthodox people, back from when there was a push to refer to the group as Centrist Orthodox. Unfortunately, this is the kind of self-criticism that may be cathartic but is entirely ignored and unproductive.

R. Yitzchok [Irving] Breitowitz, "A Symposium on Divided and Distinguished Worlds" in Tradition 26:2 (1992), pp. 20-21:

"[L]et us learn to cultivate within ourselves the quality of heshbon hanefesh instead of seeking fault in others. Centrist Orthodoxy must ask itself some hard questions. Do we strive for our children to become talmide hakhamim? Do we consider the quality of Jewish education to be at least as important as secular? Is it true, as oft stated, that on the whole Centrist Orthodoxy produces individuals who are committed to limud ha-torah, tefillah betzibbur, and meticulousness in kashrut as is commonly assumed? Is Centrist Orthodoxy as practiced a truly integrated philosophy of life or a convenient cop-out? Perhaps we must open our hearts and sould and learn from the Right Wing a greater sens of reverence and kedusha. Perhaps we have lost the capacity to be outraged by sin and are no longer capable of a sense of kanau-ut. Could it be that our oft-praise tolerance of nonhalakhic deviations is essentially predicated on indifference?...

[I]f a true rapprochement [between Centrists and the Right] is to be attained, the Centrist camp must learn to be intolerant of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with Torah and must unequivocally disassociate itself from spokesmen and statements that degrade Da'at Torah, denigrate gedolim, or dilute halakha. In our desire to be liked and accepted, we must no betray our sacred heritage by deliberate distortion. If this amounts to the horrendous accusation of "turning to the right," then let us plead guilty with no apologies.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Post-modern Objections to Academic Jewish Studies

R. Walter Wurzburger, "Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy" in Tradition (1994:1), p. 7

The Rav's objection to the employment of modern historic and textual scholarship to ascertain the meaning of halakha reflects not naive traditionalism but highly sophisticated post-modern critical thought. He insists that halakha operate with its own unique canons of interpretation. According to R. Soloveitchik, scientific methods are appropriate only for the explanation of natural phenomena but have no place in the quest for the understanding of the normative and cognitive concepts of halakha, which imposes its own a priori categories, which differ from those appropriate in the realm of science. It is for this reason that the Rav completely ignores Bible criticism and eschews the "positive historical" approach of the "Science of Judaism."
But what about using those methods for purely theoretical purposes, such as the establishment of historical layers?

UPDATE: I found the entire essay online.

Studying Heresy

There is a passage in R. Ahron Soloveitchik's Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pp. 45-47) regarding the study of biblical criticism and other modern heresies. Because it is a long passage, I will break it up with short comments.

The initial story about R. Moshe Soloveitchik:

A professor who taught Bible in a college once came to my father [R. Moshe Soloveitchik], of blessed memory, to ask whether the opinions of Bible critics, with his personal refutation, of course, could be source material. My father said, "No." Then my father told me to bring the Rif on Sanhedrin (Perek Cheilek). He opened to the Rif's commentary on the statement "One who reads books of foreign subject matter has no portion in the World to Come." The Rif explains "foreign subject matter" to include commentaries which interpret the Tanach without the oral tradition of Chazal. The Rif says that "afillu d'varim tovim shebahem," even the proper ideas found in such volumes, may not be read.
R. Ahron finds this difficult and poses the following questions:

At first glance, my father's response would appear to contradict the dictum, "Accept the truth from anyone who utters it." Certainly, the Rambam in Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh bases many theories on the Greek scholars. So why should we hesitate to search for truth in "foreign subject matter"?

A related question arises from Maseches Sanhedrin (38b), where Rebbe Yochanan says that " 'Know how to answer a heretic' applies only to a non-Jew": Why should we not engage in the same type of dialogue with a Jewish heretic? Does this imply that the works fo a Jewish non-believer such as Freud are prohibited, even for the good ideas found in them?
So far, so good. Here is the beginning to R. Ahron's answer:

My father believed that just because a Jew is an apikores, or heretic, does not mean that one may not read that person's writings in general. Just because Freud wrote pieces like "Moses and Monotheism," which undoubtedly is heresy, there is no reason not to study his work on the intricacies of human nature and the depths of the human psyche. The intention of the Rif in forbidding "even the proper ideas of the writings of heretics" is with regard to those apikorsim whose endeavor is to undermine the k'dushas haTorah, the holiness of the Torah. Aristotle and Hippocrate never set out to undermine the religious foundation. Freud, although an apikores, never made it his goal to uproot the ideas of the Torah. Therefore, the important research and learning of these men must be studied.
In other words, R. Moshe's injunction was against the study of those heretics who intended to uproot the Torah. He was not referring to other heretics.

Bible and Talmud critics, whose goal by definition is to undermine the k'dushas haTorah, must be ignored. The words of the Rif focus on the reason for his attitude, since he describes such people as "t'shuvasam b'tzidam," people with answers by their side. About some individuals we might say that they are victims of some negative teachings, that they possess streaks of heresy within their outlook. But when someone's primary goal is to uproot the divinity and sanctity of Torah, there are "answers by his side."
I just have no idea what this means.

The untruths within such discourse often appear as emes, truth, in deceptive and misleading fashion. The Rif forbids the works of heretics, as he says, because "yesh bahem tzad minus - there is in these works a heretical side." Why does the Rif refer to their "evil side" - after all, aren't these writings entirely venomous? As my father explained, the danger of "foreign books" is the writing which appears salutary on one side, but whose essence is the evil side.
Now he seems to be saying that the heretics who intend to uproot the Torah are deceptive, so that even what appears to be a "good thing" might actually be a "bad thing".

My father's words are so true. When I read about Wellhausen, I saw that the purpose of the Bible critics is not to explain with intellectual honesty. The first step of the Bible and Talmud critics is to undermine the k'dushas haTorah.
What R. Ahron seems to be saying is that the books of dishonest heretics may not be read, even for the "good things" in their writings. But honest heretics do not fall into this category.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man

Also from R. Ahron Soloveichik's Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (p. 61):

From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity. It must be conceded that the Torah recognizes a distinction between a Jew and a non-Jew. This distinction, however, is not based upon race, origin, or color, but rather upon k'dushah, the holiness endowed by having been given and having accepted the Torah. Furthermore, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew does not involve any concept of inferiority but is based primarily upon the unique and special burdens that are incumbent upon the Jews.
I have another good quote from this book but I am saving it for tomorrow, by which time I hope to understand it.

Hallel on Yom Ha-Atzma'ut

I know this is belated, but I thought readers would find this interesting. There are many views on this subject, but R. Ahron Soloveichik's is one that tends to get overlooked. The following is from his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind:

Before turning to the halachic questions raised by Yom Haatzma'ut, we must ask whether 5 Iyar, the day on which the independence of Israel was declared, is of more significance than any other day in the course of our survival in the War of Independence. I think it is... (p. 188)

There is no doubt that Hallel cannot be recited with a blessing today. (p. 191)

The recitation of Hallel is obligatory only when the redemption affects the Jewish nation in its entirety, and this will be realized only in Yemos Hamoshiach. (p. 196)
In other words, Hallel is optional on Yom ha-Atzma'ut but, if recited, should not be said with a berakhah. I distinctly remember that when he prayed in the YU beis midrash, he would say Hallel in its "proper" place while everyone else was saying tahanun.

Monday, May 10, 2004


Good questions from Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's article "Religious Law and Change":

When is an unreflecting faith "religiosity," and when is it philistinism? When is cowering before a hideous death simply a failure of nerve, and when does it betoken a weakness of the spirit? When is a series of breaches - just that, and when does it signify erosion? When does a mute cry for help arise from an inability to cope, and when from a lack of will to cope? When is a refusal to live life as freely and fully as sanctioned by the law a mark of religious intuition, and when is it a misplaced, foolish piety?
How one views contemporary reality is (obviously) reflected in how one reacts to such phenomena, and whether one shows sympathy or revulsion.

Avodah Zarah Wigs II

I found a responsum on the subject of wigs made in India from, surprisingly, a number of years ago. R. Moshe Shternbuch has a long discussion of the various issue in his Teshuvos ve-Hanhagos vol. 2 no. 414 (consider that volume 4 was recently published, so this is an old teshuvah). He concludes that such wigs are assur and that one might not even be able to buy a different type of wig from someone who sells such wigs from India (tofes es damav etc.).

Importantly, he ends by saying that this matter depends entirely on the reality at the time and must be reviewed constantly to determine the actual production flow of wigs and whether it has changed.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

The Democratization of Halakhah

House of Hock very graciously mentioned this blog in a post, and I return the favor. I appreciate both the praise and the publicity, but must comment on something I found troubling in their post. In a democracy, every citizen has a vote. Judaism is not a democracy. Not everyone has a vote over what is the halakhah and what is not. There is certainly a hierarchy, in which the more knowledgeable have more of a say while the less learned have less of a voice.

It is, in my opinion, quite unfortunate that semi-literate people do not always recognize their lack of learning. I considered myself privileged to recognize how little I know in comparison to some of the rabbis living today. What scares me, though, is that compared to a whole lot of people I know, I am very learned. I find it laughable that they feel free to disagree about an halakhic matter when they are not even familiar with the basic sugyah and how it progresses from Mishnah to Gemara and on through the ages until today! How can anyone with at most a superficial understanding of the matter profess an opinion, whether to the strict side or the lenient?

Generally speaking, if, when you approach an issue, you are not already familiar with all of the basic texts involved, you have no right to an opinion on the matter. Ask a rabbi. There are many issues that I approach when I have to look up the texts because I either have never learned them or do not remember them at all. When that is the case, I ask my rabbi about the matter even if it is quite simple. A cursory review of texts is not sufficient to fully grasp all of the intertwining issues that come into play. Even if you get a list of relevant sources from someone knowledgeable, you have to have an intuitive feel for many things before truly understanding the matter. For example, you have to feel the flow of the Gemara; understand how the rishonim interact with the texts and with each other; grasp how the aharonim relate to the rishonim and the Gemara. Extremely important is to gain a feel for which texts are considered more important than others. None of this comes easy and, even after you have studied for years and gained a general feel for these matters, you still need to spend time on a sugyah before mastering it. I always understand a matter better the second time than the first time. The third time is usually when I entirely reverse my understanding and reach a very different conclusion. And that is after years of experience.

The more I learn, the more I appreciate those who are able to maintain an intimate knowledge of many sugyos at the same time. They must have struggled with those texts as fiercely as I have, and all of the many, many texts that I have not yet approached with this intensity. Plus, they have amazing memories that I can only envy. That is why when a gadol ba-Torah rules one way, I take it very seriously even if my understanding is to the contrary. How do I know that, after learning through the sugyah a few more times, I will not reverse my opinion as I have done so many times in the past? Of course, such a reversal is only possible if I study honestly and struggle with my own inner demons that prevent me from recognizing my mistakes. But, given what I know about myself and my own limitations, how can I dismiss the conclusions of someone who has spent his lifetime conquering that which I have only started to approach?

Historically, though, there was a view within Judaism that everyone has the right to determine matter of halakhah and faith. However, this was the view of Korah - "ki khol ha-edah kulam kedoshim" (Bamidbar 16:3)* - and I would hesitate before subscribing to theory that God Himself rejected.

* I have long chuckled over the choice of the name Edah for the organization with that name.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Morality and Halakhah

A common theme in R. Aharon Lichtenstein's lectures and essays is that of morality and halakhah. There are many different paths to investigate in the commonalities and divergences between the two, including whether there can be divergences. R. Lichtenstein takes an approach with which I am comfortable, but that I acknowledge is only one of many possible Torah views.

In a particularly trenchant lecture that was adapted into an essay in In His Faith, R. Lichtenstein deals with the problems involved with teaching morality as a separate subject to students. It is quite possible that the students will use the philosophical tools of morality and find certain problems with Judaism based on their evaluations of what is and is not moral. R. Lichtenstein, honest scholar the he is, admits that this is a very real possibility and suggests the following solution:

What we need to do is not to instill morality less, but yirat Shamayim more.

I recall in my late adolescence there were certain problems which perturbed me, the way they perturb many others. At the time, I resolved them all in one fell swoop. I had just read Rav Zevin's book, Ishim Ve-shitot. In his essay on Rav Chayim Soloveitchik, he deals not only with his methodological development, but also with his personality and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). He recounted that Reb Chayim used to check every morning if some unfortunate woman had placed an infant waif on his doorstep during the course of the night. (In Brisk, it used to happen at times that a woman would give birth illegitimately and leave her infant in the hands of Reb Chayim.) As I read the stories about Reb Chayim's extraordinary kindness, I said to myself: Do I approach this level of gemilut chasadim? I don't even dream of it! In terms of moral sensibility, concern for human beings and sensitivity to human suffering, I am nothing compared to Reb Chayim. Yet despit his moral sensitivity, he managed to live, and live deeply, with the totality of Halakha - including the commands to destroy the Seven Nations, Amalek and all the other things which bother me. How? The answer, I thought, was obvious. It is not that his moral sensitivity was less, but his yirat shamayim, his emuna, was so much more. The thing to do, then, is not to try to neutralize or de-emphasize the moral element, but rather to deepen and increase the element of yirat Shamayim, of emuna and bittachon.

I have subsequently thought of that experience on many occasions. I recall once hearing someone, regarded as a philosopher of sorts, raise moral criticisms of various halakhic practices. When asked about these criticisms, I said, "I know that particular person. He doesn't look for a foundling on his doorstep every morning."

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Avodah Zarah Wigs

I first heard about this a month or two ago. It seems that there are idolatrous religions in the Far East in which one ritual is the cutting off and donation of hair to their false gods. This hair is then sold for use in wigs that are marketed throughout the world.

If it turns out, as many are claiming, that these wigs are sold in the Orthodox sheitel market, then I believe that we have a serious problem. To my understanding, such wigs fall under the category of takroves avodah zarah and are prohibited to be used or even sold. Even the nullification of the hair's sanctity by those who sell these wigs to the general public, if that is a nullification, does not remove the prohibition (see Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 139:1-2).

This is not a humrah. This is plain vanilla halakhah.

Of course, the facts have to be uncovered and there could very well be circumstances that introduce further questions into the analysis. But the basic premise is serious and should not be considered some new-fangled humrah.

Kol Ishah III

(continued from here)

V. Misexplaining Ervah

R. Berman, in elaborating on the Franco-German position that he claimed to have found, explained that one may not recite keri'as Shema while listening to a woman sing because a woman's voice is distracting. "[T]he central concern with hearing a woman's voice is not its intrinsic sensuousness, but the purely functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study" (p. 48). This is quite astounding.

A woman's voice is distracting to a man, R. Berman claims, but that has nothing to do with its sensuousness. If so, then why is a woman's voice more distracting than a man's voice or even someone loudly clapping? Why would the Gemara call it ervah if it did not have some sort of sexually related meaning? This claim, which is actually quite important for R. Berman's thesis, is entirely baseless and implausible. This, beside the point that he misunderstood the Franco-German position(s). (Cf. R. Henkin, p. 67)

VI. Misinterpreting the Ra'avad

R. Berman explains the Ra'avad's position as having the following three components:
1. A man may not hear a woman's speaking voice.
2. A man may not recite keri'as Shema while hearing his wife's singing voice or another woman's speaking voice.
3. A woman's speaking voice as an impediment to reciting Shema is limited to cases of unfamiliarity. If, however, the man is used to hearing this woman's speaking voice then he may recite Shema in earshot of her voice.

Inexplicably, R. Berman extends this limitation (#3) to a woman's singing voice (pp. 51-52). Quite the opposite. Barring evidence to the contrary, it entirely stands to reason that the Ra'avad is of the same view as his fellow Provencal scholar, R. Menahem Meiri. Indeed, after discussing Ra'avad's position at length, Meiri states explicitly that there is no limitation of familiarity to a woman's singing voice. (Cf. R. Henkin, p. 71)

With this misinterpretation removed, R. Berman's statement that "it is not at all clear that the Rabad would recognize the existence of a general bar to hearing the singing voice of a woman" (p. 52) can be entirely discarded.

VII. Misexplaining the Sefer Hassidim

R. Berman cited the extremely stringent view of R. Yehudah he-Hassid in his Sefer Hassidim that not only may a man not listen to a woman's voice, but a woman may not listen to a man's voice. The implication that a woman may also be sexually aroused by a man's voice, much like a man might be aroused by a woman's voice, seems clear even if quite unique in the halakhic literature. But R. Berman draws a different conclusion, "the fundamental concern is not the voice per se but the character of the social relationship which might result" (p. 53). This seems like quite a leap from the simple words of the Sefer Hassidim.

VIII. Denial of Sensuousness

Throughout the essay, R. Berman strives to remove the implied sensuousness of a woman's voice from the issue. Upon doing this, he can then limit the applicability of the prohibition of listening to a woman's voice. However, much of his analysis that leads to these similar interpretations are specious, such as in the case of R. Yehuda he-Hassid just mentioned. In other cases, such as with the Ra'avad and Ra'avyah, R. Berman's attempt to remove the sexual context is based on misinterpretation.

IX. Misinterpretation of the Rambam

The above tendency is further witnessed in R. Berman's explanation of the Rambam's view. The Rambam writes as follows:

One who looks at a small finger of a woman and intends to enjoy it is like one who looks at private parts. Even to hear the voice of [a woman who has the status of] ervah or to look at her hair is forbidden. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Issurei Bi'ah, ch. 21 par. 2)
It seems quite clear that the Rambam is forbidding listening to a woman's voice for pleasure. However, R. Berman curiously explains the Rambam thusly: "[H]e has indicated that hearing a woman's voice, similar to viewing her hair or ogling her body in a sensuous manner, is an activity which might lead to intercourse and is therefore banned in the context of the relationship to an erwah" (p. 55). R. Berman further states that the Rambam has gone beyond earlier authorities "in his specification of a woman's voice as the focus of the ban on the development of warm social relationship between persons married to others" (pp. 55-56). From where R. Berman manufactures these deductions, I do not know. It is certainly not to be found in the text of the Rambam. The enjoyment of staring at a woman or listening to her voice is what the Rambam prohibits, not the "development of warm social relationships."

What we have seen so far is that R. Berman has been incorrect in his analysis of almost every single medieval view. I will not move beyond this time period except in regard to one point.

X. Improper Exclusion of Single Women

R. Berman accuses R. Yosef Te'omim, the author of the important Peri Megadim commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, of innovatively expanding the prohibition of listening to a woman's voice to the voice of unmarried women (p. 61). The truth, though, is that R. Te'omim was merely formalizing the obvious. A man may not listen to the singing voice of a woman who is an ervah. A single woman who has even once menstruated is a niddah, i.e. an ervah. Basic logic tells us that since kol ishah applies to an ervah and a single woman is an ervah, therefore kol ishah applies to a single woman. This is really quite simple.

But wait, R. Berman tells us, the Rambam explicitly excludes a single woman from all of these matters. Therefore, a man is allowed to list to her singing voice and, presumably, ogle her (p. 61). This is incorrect! The passage which R. Berman referenced (Hilkhos Issurei Bi'ah, ch. 21 par. 3) is specifically in regard to deciding whether one wishes to marry this woman. For that purpose, and that purpose alone, the Rambam permits a man to carefully look at his potential mate. There is no mention of listening to her voice and, from the fact that a prospective husband requires special permission to look carefully at this single woman, we see clearly that in all other cases it is forbidden. She is an ervah, with all the consequences that this status entails.

XI. Conclusion

I close by pointing out that all of the great aharonim whom R. Berman quoted in his article, and many more can be added to that list, clearly disagree with his premise and are of the view that kol ishah is a general prohibition that still applies today. And, from our analysis, it is clear why they never even considered R. Berman's flawed thesis.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Kol Ishah II

I came across a good online essay by R. Howard Jachter about the practical aspects of kol ishah in contemporary society.

Most of the essay is a discussion of contemporary halakhah, but he concludes with the following important statement:

Observance of the Kol Isha prohibition is quite challenging for us as this prohibition runs counter to the prevailing Western culture. In today’s promiscuous society where outrageous behavior is deemed acceptable, a woman’s singing voice appears innocuous. Moreover, the general culture views this prohibition offensive and demeaning to women. We are challenged to hold firm to our beliefs against the flow of the general cultural tide. This is one of the issues that we must part company with the rest of society, just as Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu parted with their two servants on the road to Akeidat Yitzchak. Rav Yehuda Amital told me that we should strictly observe the Kol Isha prohibition today precisely because of the deterioration of the moral standards of western society.

Kol Ishah

It is generally understood that a man is not allowed to hear a woman's singing voice. Exactly when this applies - only while she is in view or even otherwise, only live or even recorded, etc. - is a complicated matter of dispute that everyone should resolve with their own rabbis. I will not address these important practical topics. Instead, I will critique an essay that, I believe, is damaging and entirely mistaken.

R. Saul Berman wrote an important article regarding the propriety of men listening to a woman sing that was published under the title "Kol 'Isha" in The Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume. I believe the article to be entirely mistaken and based on a number of scholarly faults. An excellent critique of this article was published by R. Yehuda Henkin in his Equality Lost under the title "Kol Ishah Reviewed." I will be adding to R. Henkin's critique and following a different organizational structure, but will cite R. Henkin when appropriate.

A source tells me that R. Berman is in the process of rewriting this essay. Be that as it may, I can only judge what I see with my eyes, and that is the old essay.

I. False Premises

The first fault I find with R. Berman's article is that he creates three a priori possible approaches and forces various different rishonim into those views. Some would call this the Brisker methodology but I hesitate to give it such credibility. To me it seems like an arbitrary smoothing over of differences which leads to a distortion of true views. Thus, according to R. Berman the Franco-German approach is that men may not listen to kol ishah while reciting keri'as Shema but at other times may do so. None of them actually say this, but once he created such an a priori category it was easy to place sources into that category and ignore differences in position.

Additionally, aside from the over-simplification of history that this commits by assuming that all scholars in a particular region had the same approach, R. Berman fails in his attempt at an historical analysis by neglecting to describe the chronological development of sources or even to mention the historical interplay between scholars. For example, it would be more appropriate to refer to the Ra'avyah as a student of R. Eliezer of Metz than as a contemporary (cf. R. Berman, pp. 47-48; Ephraim Urbach, Ba'alei ha-Tosafos, pp. 154, 379). Is there an earlier position that is distinct from a later position, or a French position different from a German position? Did R. Eliezer of Metz, the connector of France and German traditions, innovate an interpretation that influenced subsequent German thought? R. Berman never pursued these lines of questioning.

II. Discarding Sources

After creating a priori categories and forcing scholars into those categories, R. Berman seems to merely discard those sources that cannot be forced into his categories. For example, the Franco-German approach that kol ishah only refers to keri'as Shema is explicitly contradicted by R. Yitzhak Or Zaru'a. R. Berman notes this fact (p. 48) and then ignores this position for the remainder of the article. Perhaps we can learn from the Or Zaru'a about his contemporaries. Or maybe we can conclude that R. Berman's a priori category is inappropriate. But R. Berman does not follow that path of thinking. Instead, he glosses over the contradictory evidence.

III. Ignoring Other Elements of the Primary Sugya

The central talmudic discussion of kol ishah is in Berakhos 24a:

R. Yitzhak said, "An exposed handbreadth [of flesh] of a woman is ervah (a matter of sexuality)."

For what purpose? If I say that the rule treats the matter of gazing upon such a thing, Rav Sheshes said, "Why did Scripture list ornaments worn outside clothing along with those worn inside [at Num. 31:5]? It was to tell you that whoever looks even at the little finger of a woman is as if he stared at her sexual parts." Rather, the rule relates to one's own wife, and it pertains to the recitation of the Shema.

Rav Hisda said, "A woman's leg is ervah, as it is said, 'Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers' (Is. 47:2), and thereafter, 'Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yes, your shame shall be seen' (Is. 47:43)."

Shmuel said, "A woman's voice is ervah, as it is said, 'For your voice is sweet and your face pretty' (Song 2:14)."

R. Sheshes said, "A woman's hair is ervah, as it is said, 'Your hair is as a flock of goats' (Song 2:14)."
Surprisingly, R. Berman does not quote this passage in its entirety even though it is the locus classicus for the discussion of kol ishah. When you look at the passage, you see that there are two issues discussed. One is that of absolute ervah that may never be looked at, e.g. "the little finger of a woman." The other is that of ervah in regards to keri'as Shema. One may not look at "an exposed handbreadth of a woman," even of one's wife, while reciting keri'as Shema. The Gemara then lists three different things as ervah but does not tell us whether these are cases of general ervah or specific (only for keri'as Shema). One could legitimately read this passage as saying that they are one or the other, or both.

It is important to note that the Gemara seems to group together the thigh of a woman, the hair of a woman and the voice of a woman. It seems like a difficult argument to make that the Gemara intended voice to be specific (apply only to keri'as Shema) but hair and thigh to be general. An even more difficult suggestion to support is that hair and thigh apply only to keri'as Shema.

None of this is discussed by R. Berman, which led him to misinterpret the view of the Franco-German school (Cf. R. Henkin, pp. 67-68). Had he more carefully analyzed the primary talmudic passage he may have drawn very different conclusions.

IV. Misinterpreting the Franco-German Position(s)

Based on three sources from France/Germany, R. Berman created a model for a Franco-German approach in which he tried to place the Ra'avyah, Yere'im and Mordekhai, with the Or Zaru'a inexplicably dissenting. The three scholars who define the Franco-German school are of the view, according to R. Berman, that it is "not inherently wrong to hear a woman's voice, but one might not, while hearing it, be engaged in a religious activity which required his whole-hearted attention" (p. 48).

However, this reading of the Franco-German texts is difficult after taking into account the entire passage in Berakhos quoted above and some of the most important French scholars whom R. Berman neglected to quote. R. Berman cited the three Franco-German scholars mentioned above who state that one may not recite keri'as Shema while hearing a woman's singing voice. He automatically assumed that they read the Gemara in Berakhos as identifying a woman's thigh, hair and voice as only prohibited while reciting the keri'as Shema. As noted above, this is certainly a difficult interpretation, and definitely not the only or most likely one. It seems much more likely that these sources consider a woman's thigh, hair and voice to be prohibited ervah that, additionally, interfere with keri'as Shema even if they are of one's wife. Thus, just like the Gemara states that (1. general) a man may not stare at even the little finger of another woman and (2. specific) may not recite keri'as Shema while looking at an exposed handbreadth of his wife's flesh, it also states that while a man is normally prohibited from (1. general) looking at the thigh and hair and listening to the singing voice of a woman other than his wife but is also prohibited from (2. specific) reciting keri'as Shema while looking at even his wife's thigh and hair and listening to her voice. The textual parallel is quite compelling and is probably what the Ra'avyah, Yere'im and Mordekhai intended.

However, another way to read this passage is that the Gemara begins with a statement that a man may not look at a woman's unexposed handbreadth of flesh. Due to difficulties, it then modifies that statement to refer to one's wife and keri'as Shema. The passage then returns to the original discussion and states that a man may not look at a woman's thigh and hair or listen to her singing voice. Thus, neither hair nor voice have anything to do with reciting keri'as Shema. There are a number of important French rishonim who list the impediments to reciting keri'as Shema and do not list hair or voice. The implication is that they read the passage as just explained - thigh, hair and voice are prohibited in a general situation and not just for keri'as Shema. This is a critical point. How would R. Berman explain these rishonim omitting hair and voice from the impediments to keri'as Shema? Since he rejects the contention that voice is generally prohibited, he would have to say that these rishonim reject the entire passage in Berakhos. Certainly we prefer to reconcile rishonim with the talmudic text over rejecting the passage, particularly when the reconciliatory reading of is more compelling.

What is really difficult to R. Berman's thesis is that the French rishonim who seem to read the passage in Berakhos as referring to a general prohibition and not merely to keri'as Shema are among the most important in the Franco-German tradition. Rabbenu Ya'akov Tam, the dean of the Tosafist school, is among them, as is R. Yitzhak (Ri) Ha-Zaken, the force behind the Tosafos writings. Also among them is R. Moshe of Coucy - the Semag - who was among the last of the Tosafists. So, too, the Tosafos of R. Yehudah he-Hassid.

What we end up seeing in the Franco-German school, at least before a more thorough historical analysis is performed, is two schools of thought:

1. A man is forbidden to listen to kol ishah but it has no special status in regard to keri'as Shema
2. Not only is a man forbidden to listen to kol ishah, but he cannot recite keri'as Shema while listening to even his wife sing.

(Cf. R. Henkin, pp. 67-68)

(b"n, more to come)

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Charitable Reading

Texts do not stand on their own. Because no written work can ever be entirely clear, and the ones that come close are of an extremely burdensome length, texts require interpretation. A reader must work on understanding a text and resolving any difficulties that arise. Some written works are incorrect. Other times, however, the writer was simply unclear or left out important statements for various reasons that we may never know. Assuming that the author was a master scholar with full command of logic and all relevant texts, and working based on this assumption to decipher the author's full theory, is called giving the text a "Charitable Reading."*

The question then arises, how much effort must a reader make before concluding that the text is in error? (An additional question is, how far beyond the writer's frame of reference may a reader journey in trying to resolve difficulties? But that is for a separate discussion.)

There is no simple answer to this question. Within learning Torah, there are different schools that have different approaches to this. Some give special reverence to pre-modern works and only expend effort to resolve difficulties in works from that time period. If an aharon writes something that seems wrong, just ignore it and work with the building blocks of the Talmud and rishonim. Many do not even bother to look at aharonim.

Others choose the most prominent aharonim and give them, also, a "charitable reading." If some less prominent aharon writes something that seems difficult, students will simply skip that section rather then spending time trying to resolve it.

There is one yeshivah that, in principle and in practice, gives every text a "charitable reading." This inevitably leads to hours - sometimes days and weeks - attempting to resolve the knottiest of problems so as to reconcile aharonim with various texts and theoretical constructs. The intellectual feats that these students perform is truly amazing, although to someone outside of their school, like this writer, it seems somewhat wasteful. I would not call it intellectually dishonest, though, because they are attempting to give the texts a "charitable reading" and understand the true intent of the author.

Various critics of the Talmud, halakhah or even modern Feminist innovations find easy fodder by refraining from giving texts a "charitable reading" and, instead, assuming that the authors made basic errors. I hope that I have not done this but it is sometimes difficult to evaluate one's own work.

* I first heard the term "charitable reading" used in this context by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik. However, I doubt that it was a particularly innovative application. In case it was, I am hereby noting my source.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Smoking in Halakhah

[Thanks to Protocols, who in turn thanks The Town Crier, for bringing this to my attention.]

A new book has been published, titled Hayim le-Lo Ishun Al Pi ha-Torah by R. Yehezkel Ishayek of Bnei Brak, in which the author argues that smoking is absolutely prohibited.

The Jerusalem Post summarizes some of his arguments:

Preserving one's health is an important positive commandment; smoking in public involves desecration of God's name by acting counter to the rulings of the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) and many other greats who came out against smoking; the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein declared that smokers who expose others to their smoke must compensate them financially for the damage they cause; that smokers are a bad example to youth; and that saving people from smoking may be a greater mitzva than redeeming Jewish captives.
I am no fan of smoking and I used to think that it is absolutely assur to smoke. But after a brief private conversation with a prominent rav I began to question whether it really is assur. After all, each cigarette is only marginally dangerous. Is such an incremental danger really prohibited, even if the cumulative impact of smoking over an extended period of time is certainly harmful? I'm not so sure. This is, of course, an incredibly complex question to answer and I am unqualified for such a difficult task. But the question is intriguing.

However, I am certain that smoking is stupid and that alone should prevent a ben Torah from doing it.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Humrah Society II

Is it permissible to be stricter than one's parents or grandparents on halakhic matters? The Gemara in Gittin (5b) records a suggested change in the procedure of writing a get that was rejected so as not to cast aspersions on the gittin of earlier generations. Perhaps here, too, we may not be strict so as not to cast aspersions on previous generations.

The Terumas ha-Deshen (teshuvos, no. 232) discussed the applicability of this concept to other cases. For example, the Gemara (Gittin 85b) tells us that Rava instituted a change in the standard language of a get. Similarly, in medieval France, Rabbenu Tam instituted a further change in the language of a get. Did these changes not cast aspersions on the gittin of previous generations?

The Terumas ha-Deshen distinguishes that, in the original case of the Gemara, the suggested change was trivial because it was clear that it was halakhically unnecessary and a mere humrah for the sake of strictness. However, when there is a significant dispute and the correct halakhah questionable, a later generation may be strict for the other opinion despite the previous generation's leniency. This would imply that, even today, if someone questions the halakhic propriety of an act then he may be strict on that matter even though previous generations were lenient. As long as there is a debate on the subject and he is not merely being superfluously strict.

Furthermore, it is questionable whether the issue of casting aspersions on previous generations applies to cases other than gittin. The Pis-hei Teshuvah (Yoreh De'ah 214:4) raises just this question and posits that it is a matter of dispute. According to the Ra'anah, the issue only applies to gittin while according to the Magen Avraham it applies to other matters as well, in his case tefillin. The Arukh ha-Shulhan, in his commentary to the laws of nedarim (Yoreh De'ah 214:26) that was only published from manuscript within the last twenty years, suggests that even the Magen Avraham would only apply the issue of casting aspersions to objects that currently exist. For example, if we were to cast asperions on earlier gittin, we would be implying that people alive today, the descendants of the woman divorced in that earlier generation, are mamzerim. Or, in the case of tefillin, we would be implying that the cherished tefillin from 100 years ago are not kosher. But merely on acts, all agree that we may be stricter than previous generations.

The Minhas Elazar (vol. 4 no. 7) dealt with this issue in regard to fixing a potential problem in a mikveh. In response to this objection, he offered fourteen different answers. Some of these answers only apply to his local problem but many are universal. His first answer is the most important to us: casting aspersions only applies to gittin where there is an implication that descendants are mamzerim. The interested reader is directed there for a more lengthy presentation.

In conclusion: No, there is no problem of casting aspersions on previous generations by, for example, drinking only Halav Yisra'el even though previous generations drank non-Halav Yisra'el.

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